Remember the glory of the spirit, the valor and sacrifice of our fellow countrymen. This Memorial Day, I want to share with you five sobering stories from Jim Sheeler’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Final Salute: A Story Of Unfinished Lives.
Navy Corpsman HM3
Christopher “Doc” Anderson
A Navy Corpsman looked at the blue star in the window and the name underneath, and felt his entire body wince. As a hazy winter sunset draped the foothills in the suburbs of Longmont, Colorado, the eyes of Navy Chief Petty Officer Kip “Doc” Poggemeyer fixed on the blue star flag, signifying the family had a loved one overseas. Christopher “Doc” Anderson, the flag’s stitching read.
The star tradition began during World War I when families would hang a blue star in the window of homes with a serviceman deployed overseas. A gold star meant he didn’t make it back alive.
A year earlier, Doc Poggemeyer’s wife had one of those flags in her window, as did his parents. Only the name was different. Poggemeyer had spent his deployment at Marine Corps Air Station Al Asad in Iraq, the closest medical base to some of the heaviest fighting in the country—a base that frequently shook with mortar attacks. In his first week he saw massive combat wounds while performing the job his grandfather had held during World War II, the same job he knew he had wanted since he was a little boy.
Unlike Major Beck, he had seen the effects of combat “in country”. He had watched men die. He tried not to think about the sailors who had to deliver the news back home.
That afternoon the corpsman and another casualty assistance officer first met a Navy chaplain. Together the sailors drove down the street, searching for the address. Each home they passed was one more where life would go on—homes where families sat down for dinner, made plans for the holidays, discussed the arrangement of Christmas lights.
The SUV stopped in front of the home with an American flag flying on the front porch, and the blue star flag that was about to turn gold. Doc Poggemeyer walked to the porch, pushed the doorbell, and felt as though a horse had kicked him in the stomach.
Debra Anderson opened the door, saw the men in uniform, and smiled. “Oh, honey,” she said, calling to her husband. “The sailors are here. The recruiters are here.”
Rick Anderson came to the stairs and his face fell. A former Navy SEAL, he recognized the uniforms.
“Honey, we need to sit down,” he said. “These aren’t recruiters.”
The history of the Navy hospital corpsman dates back to the Spanish-American War. The Marines needed a field medic and looked to the Navy to provide one. Since then, each time a Marine is wounded, he or she is turned to the sailor whose uniform is stitched with a caduceus—the well-known symbol of two intertwined snakes on a winged staff often used as an emblem for healers.
Navy corpsmen have served in some of the most harrowing battles of the last century. They have earned a disproportionate share of accolades and awards and suffered a similarly large percentage of casualties.
Despite both services operating beneath the umbrella of the Navy, Marines and sailors hold an intense traditional rivalry. When new hospital corpsmen are assigned to Marine units, the Marines may tease them, calling them “squids” or worse. Still, the hospital corpsmen have to learn to think, act and react with the speed of their Marine unit. Sometimes they are forced to grab a weapon. Before that, they are the ones reaching for the first aid kit.
When a hospital corpsman is first attached to a unit, the Marines will call the sailor by his first or last name, or maybe just “corpsman”. Eventually, when sailors earn the Marines’ respect, they are called “doc”. Once the fighting begins, the corpsman’s duty is usually one of the riskiest—the corpsmen carry their own weapons along with loads of medical gear. The Marines say they will take a bullet for the corpsman because he or she is the only one who can take it out.
Somewhere near Ramadi, Christopher Anderson’s Marines had called on their doc. Hours later, near Denver, Doc Poggemeyer received a similar call, one he hadn’t prepared for in field medical training school.
A corpsman, he was told, had been killed in action in Ramadi near a mortar attack. The doc had come full circle.
That night, twenty-two-year-old Kyle Anderson steered his food delivery truck along the crumbly gravel roads of eastern Colorado. His cell phone rang and he heard his father’s voice asking him to come home, saying that he needed help with something. It was the first time in Kyle’s life that he heard a waver in his father’s voice. After serving in the Navy’s most elite team of special forces and later earning a black belt in karate, there was nothing the old man couldn’t handle.
Kyle asked the question that immediately consumed him: “Is my brother alive?”
“No,” his father finally managed and Kyle hung up the phone. On the other end of the line, his parents worried. The notification team offered to pick up the young man who was suddenly the couple’s only son. When Kyle called back, his parents asked him to pull over. The sailors would meet him and help him drive back. He parked his truck near an intersection just off the interstate and waited, crying alone in the dark.
Is this really happening? he wondered. As he waited longer, he thought, Maybe they won’t show up.
When the sailors arrived, Kyle dropped his head. He got out of the truck and stepped into the stinging 25-degree wind, his tears freezing on his cheeks.
Along the nearby interstate, cars rushed past at 75 miles per hour. They did not slow down.